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Summer Reading

posted: 6.21.11 by Steve Bernhardt

UntitledI’ve often thought we should endorse reading across the curriculum in addition to writing, communication, and computers. What if each class across the university required students to read at least one non-textbook title each term? Our science or education or anthropology colleagues could each choose an appealing and important title. The goal would be to create in students a strong appetite for extended reading of a wide variety of books. That would be an outcome I could endorse enthusiastically: all students who take a degree will have well developed tastes and habits for reading a wide range of non-fiction and fiction.

At UD, as at many schools, we ask all incoming students to have read a book during the summer prior to arrival. We use this shared reading as part of our first year experience seminars. We hold a big event, bringing the author to campus and filling the auditorium for the talk . Students submit questions in advance and then those chosen stand and ask their questions. Most recently, we had Tracy Kidder discuss Strength in What Remains (about the genocide in Burundi) and before that Greg Morensen discuss Three Cups of Tea (which we thought was a non-fictional account of his building schools in Afganistan). This summer, the required book is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I like this choice because it moves toward science, but with important racial themes.

I’m currently wondering whether I should plan on using this text as a writing subject in my fall first-year composition class. I believe I will. Writing assignments could go in any number of directions, toward research ethics, race in America, cancer and its cures, or information and property rights.

I am a bit nervous about whether I can actually get students to read the book, which is long (about 380 pages in paperback) and in my judgment, a bit redundant. I know the original manuscript was cut in half, but it probably should have been cut by another third. At least it is well written (unlike Mortensen’s, which I found poorly organized and written). The narrative is probably not as compelling as Kidder’s Strength. I had students write from Kidder’s book in my first-year experience seminar last year, but I ended up suspecting that many had not read or perhaps ever purchased Kidder’s book. Their writing was superficial at best. In my composition class, I will have more leverage, as I assign letter grades in a standard three-hour course, as opposed to the FYE one-credit, pass/fail system. And I will be able to encourage students to find some angle on the book that interests them, whether science, health, sociology, or history.

I don’t think it is a distraction from our goals in an introductory composition class (which at UD is titled Critical Reading and Writing) to use a real, full-length book. First-year composition is probably a good place to set the expectation that in at least some classes, reading will be substantial, requiring extended time and concentration.

I’d be interested in hearing from others who have used substantial works of quality non-fiction in their first-year writing classrooms. How can assignments best be structured to ensure that students actually read the text? As I figure out my fall plans, I’ll blog here on the approach I will take and its results.

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